why you shouldn’t be anything you want
For millennials, the first step to happiness and a productive life may to forget pretty much everything boomer culture tried to teach them.
If there’s one thing you can readily catch on TV today, it’s shows about the angst of millennials trying to navigate the world. Of course while boomers and aspiring boomers are often wrong in their criticism of millennials, it’s not invalid to say that it’s a lost generation in many ways. Overeducated, self-aware to a fault, and constantly thinking that it’s wasting its potential, it’s been very painfully accurately captured in work like Girls, a show about rather smarmy “woke” hipsters in NYC, and You’re The Worst, a show about misanthropic older millennials in LA, acutely aware that their potential is being squandered by their own inability to grow up. And it’s really hard to watch shows like this without relating to them at some level because when you’re raised being told that you just need to work hard, do what you love, and the money will come, and you will be successful with dedication and a high enough GPA, you tend to believe it. And when that doesn’t work out and you have to pivot in life to find your way again and again, you start to feel like a failure even when you finally found some real traction.
Sure, these days I’m happily married, doing software architecture, ran my own consulting business, and am still steadily advancing in my career. But I’m in my early 30s by now, and it took me a lot of stumbles to get to this point in almost every aspect of my life. Between my education miscues and two major recessions, it’s been a wild feast-or-famine ride for the better part of a decade. By my mid-20s, I felt like almost everything I tried to do from age 17 was a total waste of time and effort, and was now desperately trying to catch up to where I needed to be. This is not how it was supposed to go. After getting good grades and trying to follow market trends that allowed me to do what I thought I wanted, the conventional wisdom said that I was set to start building my career. But that’s not true. In the end, I had to look back at all my freelance work and realize that everything was pushing me towards tech and programming. My parents tried to track me towards it at several points, but again, if you grew up during the 1990s and 2000s, you were constantly told that tracking was bad, that it deprived you of choice, and that would mean that one day you’d regret not making one.
Likewise, you were always given the caricature of the typical sad sack of a human being, going to work to the same dead end jobs, sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day, coming home to sit on the couch and watch TV, then go to bed to wake up and do it again. At some point you’d settle down with someone equally boring, pop out a kid or two also destined to mediocrity, and live out your unremarkable life in your beige, cookie-cutter suburbia. It was the horror story designed to make you fear becoming ordinary and mediocre, to inspire you to do whatever you had to so you could make it in your field. This instilled horror of mediocrity drove me to work and study full time, then come home and work on projects to drill in what I studied late into the night, which is a good thing. Encouraging mediocrity is a bad idea. But because that’s your driving force, feeling like you’re not running circles around your competition and hitting all your goals, or ending up in routines associated with that caricature of mediocrity you’re taught since a young age, induces panic because you feel like a failure.
And there’s actually real science behind this. Having too many choices isn’t making us happier as individuals or as a society because #FOMO is a very, very real thing. Being constantly told that you’re just supposed to be good at anything you choose to do with a good work ethic means that when you’ve made a choice, you immediately start thinking about the other choices you could’ve made because all those choices are the same, just as people in the experiments cited in the links above develop a kind of choice paralysis with all their choices seemingly equivalent. However, when given clear choices and fewer choices, they’re happier with what they decide because not all of their options were the same and there wasn’t a whole universe of choices in front of them. It was easier to weigh the pros and cons, or just let things go because they were more satisfied with the choices they made. So what does this research mean for FOMO-afflicted millennials terrified of being seen as mediocre people-bots of the parables used to scare for years on end?
Well, in a way, it shows that tracking does work and has many benefits later in life. People predisposed to certain jobs could be sped along into them, to embrace them as their destiny. Some people will be good at several kinds of jobs, true, but at least they will be able to make a choice with fewer options and let one of them go. If they ever want to switch, they’ll know they have a genuine shot at being successful in their new careers. But the key thing is to do tracking in high school, after a survey of basic skills and predispositions, otherwise it could be abused to discriminate or pigeonhole. Tracking may involve a curated set of choices, but it does involve making a choice of one’s own free will. And if done right, it could help the mental health of an entire generation, as well as set high school grads up for a great shot at their new careers because we can show with hard data they will excel in them, a fact that colleges and employers will be sure to take into account. So maybe you can’t be anything you want to be because you’ll never be happy, but if you look at it from the standpoint that maybe that’s a farcical notion on its face, you might find your choices in life a lot more palatable.